How Many Mormons Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?

guestMormon 45 Comments

Today’s post is by Matt Workman.  I waited backstage with my small troupe of comedians. One more act to go, then it was our turn to perform. Would the act on before us whip the crowd into a frenzy? Take all the steam out of the room? Perhaps overshadow our under-rehearsed sketch? The performance started and it took us a while to figure out what was happening, but soon it was painfully obvious: our lead-in act was a PowerPoint presentation. It may not surprise you to learn that the venue for this particular comedy performance was a church activity organized by our stake.

On its surface it was a pretty unusual activity. Every ward was to assemble a troupe of performers, write a sketch, then perform it on stage. Just before the show, each ward would be given some sort of twist that had to be incorporated into their performance. Apparently, most people didn’t understand the concept, and instead we were treated to a unique display of what Mormons consider comedy. In this case, it was a parody advertisement about Snuggies (those blankets with sleeves) that you can wear to the beach, and a PowerPoint presentation containing Facebook photos with in-jokes you’d only understand if you were a member of the ward. In case you’re wondering, we did “Good Morning Winter Quarters” which set a vapid morning show amongst the death and squalor of Winter Quarters circa 1846. (Sample—Female Anchor:  This is scurvy awareness month! Male anchor: I know I’m sure aware of my scurvy!)

Mormons are fond of comparing themselves to the Jews. We point out that we each have a dietary code, an exodus, and are even tagged with similar negative stereotypes. But we part ways when it comes to comedy. Whereas the Jews have a long and proud tradition in the comic arts, we’ve been a little more reluctant to tread there.

Now before we go any further, I should point out that there are funny Mormons out there. I used to perform with a comedy troupe that included several talented and funny Saints, Aron Kader has been blazing a trail with amazing standup detailing his background as a Palestinian-Mormon, and Elna Baker has achieved success in New York doing a mix of sketch and standup comedy, and has a memoir that you should all go out and buy a dozen copies of.

But I’m going to risk incurring the wrath of the internet by saying that Kader and Baker are the outliers here and that, as a people, we’re not terribly funny, or at the very least, we don’t place a high value on humor.

Mormons will tolerate a certain brand of humor that falls within the boundaries of The Donny and Marie Show and the Princess Bride… both shows I love. On one end, there is broad and corny humor. On the other side, the humor is cute and sentimental. In both cases, the comedy is broad, upbeat, and almost never contains a victim. Stray outside those boundaries, and there could be trouble.

For instance, one night I was trying to explain my religion to a decidedly tipsy and un-Mormon crowd at the Comedy Store and I told the following joke: “On the guilt scale, Mormons fall somewhere between the Jews and the Catholics. The problem is, God won’t let us drink to take the edge off it.” It got a big laugh that night, but the joke received a much colder response when told to a predominantly Mormon audience some weeks later.

I’m not exactly sure why we’re not good at telling jokes about ourselves that go much beyond, “how many Mormons does it take to change a light bulb?” (Answer: 5. One to change the light bulb, four to serve refreshments.) It may have to do with our practical nature built out of our pioneer heritage. Maybe comedy, which is often used to deflate the authority of those in power, just isn’t very compatible with a faith that values order and organized authority. Perhaps it simply has to do with the age of our culture. Compared to Jewish culture, we’re still in the awkward adolescent stage. Adolescents aren’t always good at having a laugh at their own expense.

But whatever the reason, about 300 in a cultural hall in Oregon who were promised comedy had to sit through a PowerPoint presentation that had captions like “don’t sue me” over a photo of someone who I assume is a lawyer. I may well spend the rest of my life wondering exactly why.

So what do you think? Are we really an un-funny people? Do you know any outstandingly funny Mormons? (Be nice, or at least funny.)

Comments 45

  1. Nothing but agreement here. In order to be funny you can’t take yourself too seriously. LDS people tend to take themselves far too seriously and have a formal taboo on mocking their leaders. Trite and light comedy can work in road shows and stake productions, but genuinely incisive humour is out of reach as long as mocking the church, its members, and its leaders is cause for getting one’s knickers in a twist.

  2. On a cruise last December Janine Gardner,a comic who lives in Salt Lake, entertained one evening. Much of her shtick was about aging-white-unmarried-childless-female-auntie (which got some laughs), but when her jokes were about living in Utah–not critical of Mormons, but laughing at Utah idiosyncrasies–it really fell flat. I thought these jokes were funny and I was laughing but not most in the crowd were. It Utah not funny because it’s Mormon? The non-Mormon crowd seemed as uncomfortable about laughing at Utah-Mormons as any Mormon crowd might.

  3. Not sure I agree with the premise, which as I understand it is that Mormons don’t have as good a sense of humor (at least about themselves) as other people. I don’t find the average non-Latter-day Saint to be any funnier than the typical Mormon; if anything, I find the opposite. And in general, I find Mormons more willing to laugh at themselves and about their culture than many or most other groups.

    As for LDS comedians, other than the occasional Brian Regan, comedians tend to engage in a type of vulgar humor that most Latter-day Saints find objectionable, so it’s no surprise that active and believing Latter-day Saints would form only a small minority of such performers. How many committed Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mennonites, or Muslims do you see tearing up the popular comedy circuit? At DNC functions, do the comic performers spend most of their routine pointing out and mocking the absurdities and hypocrisies of the Democratic Party?

    I think Mormons laugh at themselves about as well as other groups, perhaps better than many. But that doesn’t mean they like being made fun of, or especially that they like seeing their sacred beliefs put on display for mockery.

  4. Has anyone seen the DVD put out a few years ago called “Latter-Day Night Live”. Overall, I thought the majority of it was decent humor. Although I can’t remember ny of the comedians, even though I think they have all ended up in at least one “HaleStorm” movie (singles ward, the rm, etc.)

  5. #6 D.H.: I remember it had some funny parts. I also remember one particular comedian (looked sort of like Steve Carrell — Jeff Birk, maybe?) whose comedy routine consisted largely of doing stereotyped, racist, and (most damning of all) completely unfunny impressions of east Asians. I gaped in bemusement, but not amusement, at the spectacle. Honestly, I was too disgusted and embarrassed for him to be very offended.

  6. hmm…its been so long since I’ve seen it, I don’t remember that particular routine. Perhaps I repressed those memories. 🙂
    One of the local tv stations here carries a program of stand-up comedy on Sunday afternoons called “Bananas”. I don’t know if any of the comedians are LDS, but it does advertise itself as clean comedy. Some of its really funny, some of its only semi-funny. Overall its decent, but I don’t think its at the same caliber of “worldly” (not-necessarily-clean) stand-up comedy.

  7. Humor is often based on hyperbole and exaggeration – and it’s often difficult to conceive of jokes which go beyond what is often the reality in the LDS church.

    Maybe it’s just my ward, but . . . .

  8. A quote by J G.Kimbal

    this made me laugh out loud..

    “I won’t go to hell for swearing because I repent, to dam fast.”


    “boys, don’t put guns in your pockets because you might blow your brains out.”

    And people say I don’t have a sense of humor.

  9. That being said, I’m not a funny ha! ha! person, but get me in car for a two hour road trip to temple.. i can be very funny. I think its’ all a matter of relativity and sensitivity. I tend to more funny, and okay sometimes not very reverent dependent on who I am and It was my Relief Society President who usually gets me going.

  10. I agree that mormons generally aren’t funny. I loved conan o’briens funny christmas song, but me wife was offended. I like kirby heyborne and johnny biscuit.

  11. Vort:

    While I’ve not seen many Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mennonites, or Muslims make a big impression on the comedy scene, I have found that Catholics and Jews (two other faiths that, along with Mormons, try to make a serious claim that “God says we’re his people’) are much more comfortable poking fun at their own tradition.

    I don’t know why this is, but it may have something to do with the larger size of those faiths allowing for a wider range of experience and opinion. And, as I mentioned in the post, the age of the Mormon faith may have something to do with it,too. Jewish people have had a few thousand years to get comfortable with what makes them peculiar. We’re just 180 years into this. We’re practically babies in religion years.

  12. #13 mh: Are you talking about the “Mormon Tappernacle Choir” skit done in response to Senator Hatch’s attempt at writing a Channukah song? I watched it prepared to laugh. I did not find it offensive so much as stupid and completely unfunny. I was disappointed, since I was hoping for something clever — but then, I’ve never really found O’Brien very funny anyway. Stupid I can handle; some of the funniest moments I remember have been stupid. Unfunny is bad, but understandable; everyone whiffs a few. But stupid and unfunny is too much.

    I tried to find a link so you could judge for yourself, but to no avail. To be fair to Conan, I think the point was to make fun of media portrayal of Mormons and the lack of reliable information in the general media (bringing up Witness and Children of the Corn (?!) as examples of Mormons). But unfortunately, it still wasn’t funny, just dumb.

  13. Mormons are very, very funny. But that funniness is based on our incredible seriousness. I can find humor in just about everything we do. I sometimes find it hard to be serious.

  14. I think the Conan skit bringing up Witness & Children of the Corn goes to the heart of why most Mormon jokes aren’t funny to non-Mormons; because most non-Mormons don’t know enough about Mormons to get the jokes. Usually when Hollywood makes a joke about Mormons it’s about our okely-dokely goshdarn naivete such as when Frasier hired an agent who was a Mormon, and he showed up to a salary negotiation in a scout uniform. Honestly, growing up in PA, most of my friends didn’t even know where Utah was or that there were Mormons there, and they didn’t know what Mormons were until the Godmakers was shown by the local churches. At my 20 year high school reunion, people still thought it was funny to ask how many husbands I had (I’m actually not sure when that was funny).

    “LDS people tend to take themselves far too seriously and have a formal taboo on mocking their leaders.” I think these statements are true of many Mormons, plus there is a prohibition on ‘loud laughter.’ Still, the biggest reason that Mormons don’t do well in the comedy circuit is because it’s a tough business if you want to keep it clean as well as the already-mentioned problem that outsiders don’t know enough about Mormons or Utah to understand why it’s funny.

    Comedy relies on zigging when they thought you were going to zag. You take the audience to a point where they think they know where you are going, and just at the last minute you swerve. So they have to be able to go along with you, they have to think they know where you’re headed, and they have to understand why your swerve was funnier than what they expected you to say. Mormon comedians do well, IMO, at places like Johnny B’s in Provo where everyone is in on the joke. Not so much elsewhere.

  15. I find myself saying things in the presence of ward members that are prefaced with “I know I’m going to hell for saying this, but….”. I wonder if we worry too much about being irreverent, or being perceived as such. Or maybe it’s the same discussion as when is an LDS person going to write the next great novel? Perhaps the reasons are the same for both.

  16. I remember reading a Robert Kirby column from the SL Tribune to my HP group one Sunday and realized that the stony silence and unblinking stares were a clue that they didn’t think he was all that funny. I especially liked his advice on how to get released from the nursery. Break into a bishopric meeting, throw your recommend on the desk and say you worship satan. Anyway, some are offended by him, others see him as close enough to the mark to make them uncomfortable, and some, like me just think he’s funny. I’d recommend today’s effort by the way. It’s about family history.

  17. Kirby was much funnier when he wrote about police work. His columns these days are hit-or-miss. Sometimes he hits a bull’s-eye.

  18. We used to have a woman on the Australian comedy scene who billed her self as “an ex mormon lesbian commedian” who told jokes about growing up in a strict mormon houshold, where she was abused by her step father and the reactions to her sexuality by church members.

    She was successfull for a couple of years but haven’t seen her on TV recently. The members shunned her of course. I feel sad for her. but?

  19. I generally enjoy jokes directed at Mormons–I agree that we tend to take ourselves and our beliefs so seriously that we can become overly prudish and unpleasant to be around. Some examples of jokes/skits directed at Mormons that I remember really laughing at:

    -Homer Simpson opens the door to see the two aliens Kang and Kodos standing on his porch. He screams “AHH! Mormons!” and slams the door. Hysterical.

    -Several of the SNL skits that ran during the 2002 Winter Olympics. My favorite: the downhill-skiing missionaries trying to convert the competitor during a downhill racing event. Skier: “I’m in a race!” Elders: “We’re ALL in a race!!” ROFL

    -The South Park episode where everybody dies and goes to hell. They realize that Jews, Catholics, and all the other major religions are there. Someone asks: “Who was right?” and the reply: “The Mormons!”

    I liked some of the Mormon movies like Singles Ward that came out a few years back. More recent films have gotten stale. I kind of wish someone would do a Mormon movie that parallels the humor and insight of Dogma. That’s the kind of self-deprecating and self-realizing humor that we Mormons tend to actively avoid. I think the reasons for this are many: we don’t want to appear to support something that contradicts/makes light of the Church (capital C); we don’t want non-Mormons to think we take our so-called only true religion anything less than seriously; we don’t want other Mormons to judge us. The trouble is, we get judged anyway; we just get judged as being prudish and self-righteous and unwilling to confront taboo topics. And since we don’t confront them, they persist. If we were more forthright and humorous in our treatment of topics like polygamy, it would stop being a big deal to the outside world. And maybe it would stop being such a big deal to us, too.

    It would do everyone good to realize that making fun of ourselves and some of our quirky cultural traits and beliefs does not cheapen or weaken our faith or testimony or doctrine. IMO, it actually strengthens them all because it shows they can stand up to scrutiny and joking.

  20. 21# Her name is Sue-Ann Post. She was pretty funny actually. A bit anti, but for the most part I enjoyed her style of comedy.

    We also have a guy here who tends to push the envelope a bit named John Safran. He did a confrontational comedy piece where he and another guy dressed in suits went door to door in Salt Lake City trying to convert people to atheism. Made me laugh and cringe at the same time.

    As for Mormon comedians here, I really don’t know anyone who is on the comdey circuit and a practicing Mormon. It just doesn’t seem to be a vocation many Mormons take to. Shame really.

  21. I don’t think that one has to be a professional comedian to be funny, As I pointed out earlier, I think all one has to do is look to some discourses of our leaders past and present, and you can’t help but to laugh.

  22. matt: welcome!! it’s like we used to say in the old student review days: it’s funny because it’s true. are we so plugged into being missionaries that we’re too sensitive to tell the truth about ourselves for fear that people won’t want to join us? could it be that jews and catholics can joke about themselves because they are non proselytizers (by and large)?

  23. I think Hawkgrrl was partially right: Many see a doctrinal prohibition on loud laughter and light-mindedness in our church. (Not that that particular interpretation is correct, but many feel it is.)

    On the other hand, Pres. Hinckley (and other apostles) often joked in General Conference–about getting old, about the Church, etc. Some of the funniest people I know are the old farmer/temple-worker types. Corny, wry, but also incredibly witty.

    I think the dearth of Mormon comedians is due to the type of atmosphere and base jokes that professional entertainers are exposed to.

  24. I think Mormons, on the whole, take themselves a bit too seriously. I think I can understand that though. I take myself too seriously, and 3 years ago would have been offended at many of the things that I find now to be hilarious.

    I think some of the issue might be how much our religion permeates our life. Mormonism is a lifestyle in addition to being a religion. As a result, I think most Mormons don’t really separate their religion/beliefs from everyday life, where perhaps others have a more distinct segregation. I dunno, I’m just speculating. As a comparison, it’s sort of like cracking gay jokes in a gay bar and expecting a good response. People don’t like to have their lifestyle made fun of.

  25. I haven’t found Mormons to be particularly humor-deficient — unless The Home Teachers represents typical Mormon humor, which I vociferously deny. Rather, I have found certain segments of Mormondom overly eager to be perceived as not humor-deficient, with the result that they will laugh at anything and everything that attempts to make fun of Mormonism, even stuff that is blatantly unfunny (e.g. Conan O’Brien’s Mormon Tappernacle Choir skit). These are the people who will sing the praises of the genius of Trey Parker and Matt Stone for producing South Park and scoff at those who point out the essential mean-heartedness of much of what they produce, as if being funny were somehow an excuse for defying the most basic principles of social intercourse.

    Not sure which bothers me more: The transparent pretense of those who laugh at manifestly unfunny stuff simply because it targets the Church and its members, marking them as both stupid and disloyal (or bigoted, or all three), or the smugness of those who trumpet intelligent and clever, but ultimately destructive, antiMormonism as somehow exempt from the basic rules of decency and good taste. I suppose the smugness is worse; the stupidity of the first group is apparent for all to see, while the smugness of the second group masks real harm that can be done by clever lies and half-truths.

  26. Do you think it is any different for Mormons than for any other devout religious group?

    I bet you find it similar with nuns, Amish, or any other serious religious group.

    I’m not convinced it is a Mormon thing, although I completely recognize the Mormon humor style (Pres Monson says “peep” and the congregation breaks out with laughter) and how others don’t get it.

    As a people, we mormons love getting together and eating and socializing and laughing…so it is funny to us (sometimes). We love laughing, I think. We just have are not comfortable going “out of bounds” to find humor, which is why others don’t get it, I think.

  27. Humor without irreverence, and righteousness without sanctimony. Tough straddles to pull off, I’ll grant that.

  28. #31 Thomas: sanctimony n. Feigned piety or righteousness; hypocritical devoutness or high-mindedness.

    Looks to me like “righteousness without sanctimony” is a tautology, not a “tough straddle” at all.

  29. Not so. In striving for righteousness — especially within a culture that rewards righteousness with public praise and social status — there is always a temptation to accept an easy counterfeit of the real thing; to affect what isn’t truly there, or to exaggerate what is.

    I know plenty of Mormons who have a hard time telling righteousness and sanctimony apart, myself often included.

  30. My point was, if you’re sanctimonious, you are not righteous. Humor without irreverence is possible; righteousness without sanctimony is unavoidable.

  31. Except that righteousness is always a state of becoming, always alloyed to some extent with unrighteousness. “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags”; “There is none righteous, no, not one…For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Just as the sins of the flesh and the self are the default sins of people who don’t bother with God and righteousness at all, sanctimony is the sin most easily stumbled into by people whose default mode — by reasons of culture, family, or even choice — is to seek righteousness. Sometimes you don’t even notice when you’ve crossed the line.

    I doubt there is a religious person anywhere who hasn’t been a sanctimonious prig at least once in his life, except perhaps one certain Icelandic sister.

    Now obviously, the world obsesses about religious “sanctimoniousness,” and swallows whole camels’ worth of its own dissoluteness. The wicked are the most smug in judging the sins they think themselves least likely to commit. But the fact that religious sanctimoniousness is probably about #253 on the lists of Sins to Worry About right now, in attending to the matters that are weightier right now, we shouldn’t leave the other duties undone.

  32. I have seen and even experienced such religious sanctimony, but not often, and not recently. In my experience, those who cry “Sanctimonious hypocrite!” are almost invariably those who reject religion and mock its practitioners. So I guess in principle, I agree with your words, but in practice — as you say — it ranks about #253 (or #2530) on the list of Sins to Worry About. I see such a cry as mostly a red herring, seeking to heap scorn upon those who hold to moral standards others may not like and diverting attention from the “weightier matters”.

    To be clear, I am not accusing you of any such feelings or actions. I just find the seemingly common preoccupation with religious sanctimony to be mostly unjustified and usually misplaced. I see and hear sanctimony all the time, but it almost all comes from so-called “environmentalists” and others on the political left. If you want to see unbridled sanctimony personified, watch Keith Olbermann some time.

  33. Reading about righteousnss and humor made me think of this story.

    The Rameumptom

    Cast: A father and his daughter.

    “What’s a Rameumptom, Daddy?”

    “Well, the Book of Mormon says it was a place Where the Zoramites stood to worship and pray.”

    “But my Primary teacher said it was a tower that evil people used.”

    “I can see how someone could think that. The Book of Mormon says it was ‘place for standing which was high above the head’ and only one person at a time could go up there.”

    “Was it like the speaker’s stand in the church?”

    “A speaker’s stand? You mean a pulpit? Yes, I suppose it was. In fact, the word ‘Rameumptom’ means ‘the holy stand.'”

    “What’s so evil about a holy stand, Daddy?”

    “Well, it wasn’t the stand that was evil. It was how it was used. The people gathered there in their
    synagogue. . .”

    “What’s a synagogue?”

    “Just a different word for chapel or church, honey.”


    “They’d gather in their synagogue one day a week.”

    “Which day, Daddy?”

    “I don’t know, honey. It just says ‘one day,’ and they called it ‘the day of the Lord.'”

    “It must have been Sunday.”

    “Why do you say that?”

    “Because Sunday is the Lord’s day.”

    “Well, maybe it was. . . Anyway, they’d gather there and whoever wanted to worship would go and stand on the top of the Rameumptom.”

    “Could anyone go up there?”

    “Well, no, that was part of the problem. Apparently, they had to wear the right clothes. . . ”

    “You mean like us when we wear Sunday clothes, Daddy?”

    “Well, not exactly, but in a way, yes, I suppose. Some of us might have a hard time accepting certain kinds of clothes or people in sacrament meeting. But we wear our Sunday clothes to help us be reverent, don’t we?”

    “Yes, Daddy.”

    “So anyway, where was I?”

    “They went to the top of the Rameumptom. . .”

    “Yes, they would go up and worship God by thanking him for making them so special.”

    “Were they bearing their testimonies?”

    “Well, uh, I guess maybe they were in a way, but they weren’t true testimonies.”

    “How come?”

    “Because they were too proud.”

    “What do you mean ‘proud,’ Daddy?”

    “Well, they would talk about how they were ‘a chosen and holy people.'”

    “My Primary teacher said Mormons are the chosen people and we’re a special generation.”

    “Yes, honey, but that’s different.”


    “Because we are.”


    “Besides they were very, very proud about how much better they were than everyone else, because they didn’t believe the ‘foolish traditions’ of their neighbors.”

    “What does that mean, Daddy?”

    “It means that they believed everyone else was wrong and they alone were right.”

    “Isn’t that what we believe?”

    “But it’s different.”


    “Because we are right, honey.”


    “Everyone would stand and say the same thing. . .”

    “That sounds like testimony meeting to me.”

    “Don’t be irreverent.”


    “Then after it was all over, they would go home and never speak about God until the next day of the Lord when they’d gather at the holy stand again.”

    “Isn’t that like us, Daddy?”

    “No honey, we have Family Home Evening.”


  34. #36: “In my experience, those who cry “Sanctimonious hypocrite!” are almost invariably those who reject religion and mock its practitioners.”

    Absolutely. In fact, whenever I see someone branded a hypocrite, I immediately presume that the person throwing the charge out there has no real argument against what the alleged hypocrite is preaching.

    And of course the secular liberal’s definition of “hypocrisy” distorts its real meaning. A person is not a hypocrite who, having preached a principle (say, the law of chastity) falls spectacularly off the wagon. A person can fall short of even deeply held principles. He is only a hypocrite if he doesn’t truly believe the principle in the first place, and is preaching it just for the social or financial rewards of it.

    I’ve spoken in praise of “hypocrisy,” as liberal secularists often define it. Because you can only fall short of your ideals, if you have ideals to fall short of. Those whose God is their belly are never hypocrites, because they have no principles to betray. For some reason, this is supposed to mean they’re better people.

    I like a good, bracing shot of schadenfreude as much as the next man, but there’s something unseemly about secular liberals’ glee at religious men’s moral failings. They see a Ted Haggard, a Jimmy Swaggart, or a Jim Bakker and say “See! You Christians are all a bunch of frauds. Nobody can possibly live up to the standards you hypocrites carry on about!” They desperately want that to be true, to excuse them from attempting the impossible. But of course there are plenty of men of faith who manage not to betray their wives, or commit other high-profile sins. They may not be perfect, but it really is possible to make a reasonable run at Christian morality.

    All the same, religious sanctimony is a deadly sin. It’s what got the Savior crucified, after all; the Sanhedrin weren’t a bunch of dissolute hippies, but rather the duly constituted — and self-interestedly sanctimonious — ecclesiastical leaders, who killed God lest the Romans “take away their place and nation.”

    Just as you can only tell ethnic jokes if you’re a member of the ethnic joke having fun poked at it, maybe critique of religious sanctimony is something that only religious people have any business doing. They’re the ones best able to criticize in good faith, rather than using the criticism as a weapon against faith generally.

  35. 33 Thomas: “I know plenty of Mormons who have a hard time telling righteousness and sanctimony apart, myself often included.” I know lots of Mormons who can’t tell the difference between the Spirit and a touching long distance phone commercial.

  36. I haven’t followed him in recent years, and I don’t know how much of a following he had outside of Provo, but Eric D Snider was always good for a laugh. At BYU, the Garrens were always super popular, and I know Divine Comedy has been quite successful. What’s the difference? Maybe college students take themselves much less seriously than everyone else.

  37. I think the young, college aged generation LDS kids are actually very funny and have many more comedians than in other religions and are learning not to take themselves too seriously.

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